If kids needed their own version of the Guardians of the Galaxy, they now have it in Big Hero 6. Hopelessly irreverent with an emphasis on brain over brawn, this gang of self-appointed heroes is poised to launch a lucrative animated action franchise. Not even the derivative plot points can detract from the visual mastery and goofy fun of Disney’s first foray into the Marvel universe. Kids will demand multiple viewings of Big Hero 6 because it delivers the action, the gags, and a genuine emotional connection to this “walking marshmallow” and his nerdy pals.
The reason why Marvel succeeds while other superhero franchises fail is because they never skimp on story. They know the action may put people in the seats, but the memorable characters will keep them coming back for more. Luckily, Disney has embraced this same approach in their computer-animated adaptation of the quirky Marvel property, Big Hero 6.
Like many precocious kids, Hiro (Ryan Potter) hasn’t yet learned to use his particular genius for good rather than ill. He spends his evenings hopping from one illegal ‘Battle-Bot’ competition to the next, hustling all comers with his deceptively simple robot terminator. One night, his older brother, Tadashi (Daniel Henney), finally convinces Hiro to skip the fight circuit and ride along to the research lab where he works. Hiro is instantly hooked by the new tech being developed at the “nerd lab.” Of particular interest is Tadashi’s robotic nursing assistant; an inflatable vinyl A.I. named Baymax (Scott Adsit).
Baymax is the real jewel of Big Hero 6. Kids will eat him up like the big, lovable marshmallow that he is. He’s an ingenious mixture of hyper-literal android and huggable Teddy Bear. Watching the unwieldy balloon-man try to navigate the physical world is an endless delight. At a time when sarcasm is the currency of choice, it’s refreshing to hear Baymax’ lighter, more naïve delivery. It’s this simplicity that makes his friendship with Hiro feel so genuine, giving the movie added thematic and emotional heft.
Co-directors, Don Hall and Chris Williams are saddled with the herculean task of being the first Disney team to tackle a Marvel property. The results are mostly satisfying and sometimes exhilarating. The animation is crisp, the set design elegant, and the world building is dynamic. One standout sequence features a breathtaking flight over the cityscape of San Fransokyo, where an aero-fitted Baymax whisks Hiro through a floating minefield of hot-air balloons. The languid pacing of the film’s first act, when we learn Hiro’s story and meet the rest of his crew, might test the patience of younger viewers, but it also illustrates that Hall and Williams were taking notes from their Marvel brethren. Skimping on story up front might make things move faster, but the plot will invariably bog down in the end.
A stable of screenwriters and story consultants take the time to firmly establish these characters; their desires, fears and strengths become an organic part of the story. This greatly enhances the action later, as the rest of the Big Hero 6 crew rounds into shape. Though not given a chance to shine (this is clearly the ‘Hiro and Baymax’ show), each team member has their own distinct personality and is given plenty of room to grow in future movies. Fred (T.J. Miller), in particular, steals every scene as the Godzilla-like flamethrower who delights in naming each of their action set pieces (“This is totally our origin story!”).
The biggest flaw of Big Hero 6, which will only be apparent to older viewers, is the highly derivative nature of the plot points. Marvel savvy viewers will easily recognize callbacks to previous Marvel films. Visual references from Spider-Man 2 and The Avengers abound, as do the familial dynamics from X-Men and Guardians of the Galaxy. It feels like the filmmakers took pieces from the ‘adult’ Marvel universe and cobbled them into a kid-friendly format. The villain, too, isn’t particularly satisfying. Not only is he a less-interesting version of Doc Ock, the writers’ attempts to parallel his motivations with Hiro’s are clumsy and heavy-handed.
Still, it’s hard to punish such an endlessly entertaining movie for a few notable shortcomings. Big Hero 6 features fun action set pieces, lots of laughs and enough substance to draw us into the story. More importantly, Baymax and Hiro are two new friends that kids can take on their make-believe adventures.